'My pain wasn't in vain': Life Jolt host Rosemary Green on life after prison
"The first time I ever talked about my sentence was on air with Life Jolt."
Rosemary Green is a university student, a mother, a prison reform advocate and now, the host of CBC Podcasts' new series, Life Jolt.
Before signing on to host the project, Green was a former inmate, and served a five-year prison sentence for drug trafficking.
All her identities merge in this new podcast about women navigating Canada's correctional system.
Life Jolt — prison slang for a life sentence — uses individual women's stories to explore the realities of prison life. Anchored by Green's own stories of her time in prison, the series tackles a wide range of issues including parenting behind bars, segregation, the over-representation of Indigenous women in prison, addiction, trauma and the many obstacles of reintegration.
CBC Podcasts spoke with Green about her post-prison life and what listeners can expect from the show. Here is part of that conversation.
What drew you to this project? Why was it important to you that this story get told?
I want to be a voice for those who are silenced. There's so much shame behind trauma and there shouldn't be. And I want to be able to ignite something in people who feel like they can't speak up because of shame. When I left prison, I told the women I left behind that I'd be their advocate. And, you know, you meet some of the most amazing people in prison. This opportunity, [recording Life Jolt] is what I would call favour. It's once in a lifetime. People like me don't get these chances. People like us. Platforms like this are not set up. So this is not Rosemary's voice. This is the voice of millions of people.
We've seen dramatized stories of prison life through popular shows like Orange is the New Black (OITNB). How do the stories in Life Jolt differ from the depictions we see in TV and film?
Orange is the New Black is more comedic. If you take away the comedy, there's still a lot of factual stuff. For example, OITNB showed inmates having sex with officers. That was something I witnessed while I was in prison. I think a lot of times what we do is we try to make our experiences softer and more comfortable, but that's not the reality. Life Jolt brings you face-to-face with some of the true demons that leads to people being incarcerated. I was very clear to the team from the beginning that I wanted to be realistic in our portrayal and they've remained true to their word. If it was anything outside of what it really is like in prison, I wouldn't be a part of it.
Life Jolt was named after having to live out a life sentence. I'm living a life sentence. I'm not an actor. I'm a real person, I'm a mother. And I can't get on a plane and fly away and go somewhere beautiful with my children without wondering if they're going to stop me at the airport. This is our real life.
Life Jolt brings you face-to-face with some of the true demons that leads to people being incarcerated.- Rosemary Green
You said something just now, you said "I'm living a life sentence." Could you explain what you mean?
So, I traveled to Jamaica in 2014 shortly after I got home, and I got in with no problem. On my way back, I was flagged at the airport. I saw someone I knew, and he went up to the flight attendant, pointed at me, and said she's a convicted drug trafficker. As a result, I was stopped at Pearson Airport and brought into interrogation, where I was held for 12 hours. They wouldn't let me leave unless I had a bowel movement, and they made me do things I'd had to do in prison like, strip, lift your boobs, bend over, squat, spread your butt cheeks. A month later, a good friend of mine was murdered in Jamaica, so I tried to go back. I was denied entry and arrested at the airport. And to be put back in a cage, it was almost like in that moment, what I went through wasn't enough. My debt to society wasn't paid off. Even after I started dating my husband, who was a cop in Jamaica, I still struggled.
That's my life sentence. My prison sentence will never end. You get out and face so many obstacles, it's almost like you're on a jump rope. There's always a barrier. We don't get out and our time is done. We get out, and we're stuck with this record and the knowledge that we were incarcerated. That's where the name Life Jolt comes from. I won't be done until I breathe my last breath. My five-year prison sentence will always be a part of me.
Working on this series, you've had to revisit a lot of your past experiences. What has that been like for you?
It has wrecked me. I've actually had to get back into counselling. It wasn't even so much because of what I had to deal with, it was remembering the pain that I caused my family and my children. My children especially. Also, while we were recording [the podcast], my life fell apart. My husband and I separated. I was already at my bottom, and then all of a sudden my husband and I went through a horrible moment in our marriage. It felt like it was either my marriage or the show. But a part of me felt like Life Jolt had to be made. So, not only was I reliving the trauma, other things were happening. But I was so passionate and determined to get Life Jolt out. I even had COVID. Let me tell you, I got my butt kicked during this recording.
Another thing I had to face was my discomfort. I was so nervous about reading because I didn't go to school for any of this. I didn't even approach the CBC and say, 'hey, can you do a prison podcast?' John Chipman, [Life Jolt's producer], found me. I was just a social justice advocate in the community sharing my story and telling people about the importance of not forgetting prisoners. That was another layer.
Not allowing the things I've been through to define me, has been the biggest thing for me. I'm not a victim, I'm victorious. That's what I stand for.- Rosemary Green
You were nervous about the reading because of your past. When you were first arrested, you were illiterate. But you taught yourself to read inside. Can you tell us how that happened?
So this is John's favourite story. I saw a poster for [the movie], Twilight. And [the character], Edward, looked so hot and you know, after being locked up for a little while you start thinking white boys are hot even though I wasn't into them. I asked someone about the poster and she told me what it was. I grabbed the book and it was like four inches thick. I thought, I can't freakin' read this book. But I remember someone once told me if you can't read the word, just keep reading through and then sometimes that word starts to make sense. So I just kept going through it. Also, while I was in the process of being sentenced, I rediscovered my faith. I had gotten baptized when I was younger, but shortly after I started going to church, I was raped. So I hated God. But after my sentencing, I wanted to rededicate myself to God. So, I picked up a Bible and it was a King James version, which was absolutely horrible. You should've seen me trying to read that sucker. But, I just kept pushing through.
It wasn't until I got home from prison and I was reading court documents because I was fighting for custody of my one of the kids, that my sister was like, stop for a second, you're reading. It was nothing short of a miracle.
What do you hope listeners take away from this series?
You said it in the question, it's hope. Hope for tomorrow. Hope that we can beat the odds and overcome our barriers. That pain has a purpose. I hope they feel that despite their circumstances, they can overcome anything just by persevering. You know, not allowing the things I've been through to define me, has been the biggest thing for me. I'm not a victim, I'm victorious. That's what I stand for. So wherever I go and whoever I am, my prayer is that the legacy I leave behind, is that as long as you hold on to hope, nothing is impossible. That's truly my desire for all of this.
This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. Produced by Glory Omotayo. Edited by Fabiola Melendez Carletti.